Chicago’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has consistently turned out a superb blend of African rhythms and avant-garde, post-bop jazz for 20 years. Their latest effort, Freedom Jazz Dance, is no exception. A part of Chicago’s new Black Arts Movement, the EHE’s music has, to this point, been about the interaction of two horns and a drum. Founder and spiritual center Kahil El’Zabar lays down an earthy polyrhythmic groove on drum, percussion, or thumb piano. Trombonist Joseph Bowie and saxman Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins dance within and without El’Zabar’s spiritual rhythms in an ever-evolving democratic conversation. As in all human relations, the result is sometimes gentle and warm, sometimes clashing and sharp, and occasionally out of control. But it is the spontaneous and dynamic interplay of the individuals as a group, the passion and heart of the musicians as they interrelate, that defines the EHE’s sound. Relying on original compositions and traditional African-American songs, the EHE has crafted a unique style over the years, a sound that one commentator has stated “imparts an ancestral wisdom and conjures an energy and spark rarely encountered in contemporary music.”
Freedom Jazz Dance finds the group adding a new wrinkle to this long-established approach in the form of guitarist Fareed Haque. Haque, whose ethnic roots emanate from Pakistan and Chile, has studied Flamenco and Persian music in Spain and Iran. His frenetic playing and mix of styles, from European classical to fusion and R&B, provides the band with a renewed energy and vitality that takes them to a new plateau. Highlights include the beautifully lilting “Katon,” a tribute to one of El’Zabar’s children and the barreling, funky “Mama’s House,” with its infectious groove and rumbling horn lines. The music of the EHE, though, always come back to El’Zabar’s rhythmic prowess, and my favorite track is the understated, yet powerful, percussion and voice version of “This Little Light of Mine,” a traditional piece made famous by Fannie Lou Hamer during the Mississippi freedom struggle of the 1960s. Freedom Jazz Dance is a welcome addition to a long line of excellent EHE offerings.